Christmas has come and gone. Reviewing the season, I can’t remember hearing the prologue to John’s Gospel: “The Word became flesh; he made his home among us, and we saw his glory, such glory as befits the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
Those words, “we saw his glory… full of grace” that hit me as I read Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. It was written by three American scholars, Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt and David Weaver-Zercher, who are academic authorities on Amish society, history and culture.
It recounts of the horrific shooting on October 2, 2006 of 10 Amish school children by Charles Carl Roberts IV at the West Nickel Mines School in Pennsylvania.
No community is ever prepared for such a calamity and Amish school communities even less so.
“Amish offer children a deep sense of security and younger Amish children would not even recognise a pistol if they saw one,” they write. “Almost without exception, they have not seen violent movies, video games or television. They can hardly imagine violence.”
With this shooting, “the last safe place in America’s collective imagination had suddenly disappeared.”
What stunned everyone almost as much as the wanton killing of little children was the amazing Amish reaction of grace, forgiveness and love. In turn, the Amish community was overwhelmed by the response of the wider public whom they formerly regarded as “outsiders.” Amish leaders acknowledged their profound gratitude at the help provided by police, civic authorities and the general public.
To a liberal materialistic society, raised on guns and justice, “beholding God’s glory, full of grace” in the Amish response evoked a raft of differing reactions.
For the Amish themselves, such a response sprang from the wellsprings of their faith and life. No sooner had the shootings happened, than the Amish community set about “softly subtly and quietly beginning the difficult task of forgiveness.”
Such grace manifested itself in myriad ways – visiting the gunman’s father, embracing him for an hour as they assured him of their forgiveness; attending the gunman’s funeral, at which more than half the 75 mourners were Amish.
These and many more “concrete acts of grace” raised the inevitable question, “How did they do it?” Some suggested they got together to plan these acts of forgiveness, a view that staggered the Amish. For them, “forgiveness was a decided issue.” They could not understand why everyone was surprised by the inevitable reaction of a grace-filled faith.
“When forgiveness arrived at the killer’s home within hours of the crime, it did not appear out of nowhere,” claim the authors. “Rather, forgiveness is woven into the very fabric of Amish life.”
Naturally arguments for and against such actions appeared in countless articles, blogs and the inevitable film. But Catholic Sister Joan Chittister, writing in The National Catholic Reporter, summed it up: “It was the Christianity we all profess but which the Amish practiced that left us stunned.”
In their conclusion, the authors explain why they rejected “redeemed” and chose “ transcended” to describe the effect of the Amish’s gracious forgiveness. In their actions they rose above, transcended, the evil, thus offering a profoundly Christian reaction to their tragedy.
Commitment to forgive is not a small patch tacked on to Amish life. It’s intricately woven into their faith, lives, and communities.
Forgiveness is more complicated than we realise. You can’t step into the Amish community, strip mine it of forgiveness and export it elsewhere. Other factors are present that make forgiveness work, not least of which is the tight-knit communities in which they operate and which included the gunman’s family.
Forgiveness is health giving. To be controlled by anger, resentment, desire for revenge is to be slave to that which destroys. Grace gives up the right to hunt, haunt and hurt the offender.
Forgiveness offered quickly and deeply opens the door of hope. Sometimes it’s harder to forgive small repeated acts of hurt than it is a major one, but all hope-filled solutions to human life and relationships depend on the ready and deep response of grace.
Forgiveness also involves the long process of handling the hurt and anger that such events arouse in us whilst recognising that the immediate overwhelming response must be to forgive.
Amish Grace is a penetrating reminder that gracious forgiveness goes against the grain of modern life.
Looking back on Christmas, we remember how we have sung carols to ourselves and to communities of those we like. Amish Grace is schoolchildren visiting the family of Carl Roberts on Christmas Eve and singing carols to, and with, them.
When that happens it doesn’t matter whether you hear John’s prologue or not because you see revealed in those Amish children’s concrete act of forgiveness “his glory, full of grace.”
• Tom Cadman looks at life and faith through the lens of literature.